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HHS secretary 'hopes and believes' schools will reopen for fall, but must look at viral progression

First Coast News sat down with HHS Secretary Alex Azar for an exclusive one-on-one. He said he's happy to be in Jacksonville and part of the nation reopening.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary says he "hopes and believes" students will be back in the classroom around the country this fall.

In an exclusive interview with First Coast News, Sec. Alex Azar said health officials will have to "see what the science and evidence show" over the summer months when it comes to the progression of the novel coronavirus.

First Coast News was the only station invited on a tour Friday with Azar of the Mayo Clinic and Bernhardt Labs, which helps to make the swabs used for COVID-19 testing.

His first stop was visiting Dolphin Point Nursing home which is taking care of seniors who have or are recovering from COVID-19.

“I was able to go to the Mayo Clinic and see how they are able to keep their own employees safe as well their patients safe as they reopen for elective procedures and bringing care to people,” Azar said. “Then to Bernhardt Labs where I’ve been able to see how they’re able to assist with doing COVID testing at their labs by putting together the things like swabs, actually 3D printing swabs and medium so we can maximize the number of tests we can do in this country.”

Azar said he was happy to be in Jacksonville and be a part of the country reopening.

“The conditions are there to get our country back to work and back to school and back to church. We can do so safely. All too often people are describing this as health versus the economy. I don’t see it that way. I see it as health versus health,” Azar said. “I was able to see at Mayo Clinic people aren’t getting cancer screenings. I was able to see here, they do a lot of women’s health cancer screenings at Bernhardt Labs. They’re not getting screenings. Hundreds of thousands of cases of cancer are not getting diagnosed and treated in a timely manner.”

Azar said children are not getting their pediatric vaccines and cardiac patients aren’t getting the intervention they need.

“There are real health consequences to having the economy shut down and having people at home and that has to be balanced against the risk of disease spread,” Azar said.

While he said there is no guarantee, he’s hopeful 300 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine will be available by January 2021.

“The Department of Defense and HHS are working across the whole of government, the private sector and we're going to reduce inefficiency in the development of our vaccines and we're also going to start manufacturing those vaccines even before we've been able to determine if they're safe and effective and will be able to get approved by the FDA. Anything we use will be safe and effective, but we will produce that so that we've got it on hand to start administering vaccine as soon as the FDA approves hopefully multiple vaccine candidates,” Azar said.

As for whether a COVID-19 vaccine would be mandatory, he said that it will be something for state and local officials to determine.

“Let's get a vaccine first. Let’s see its safety and efficacy profile. We can worry about that if we get there. We should be so lucky as to have to face those questions,” Azar said.

While he hopes to have children back in school in the fall, he said we have to wait and see what the science and evidence show over the course of the summer in terms of disease progression.

“You know, for any parent they need to assess their own child's vulnerability, their own health condition, as well as the circumstances they'll be placed in as well as the disease progression in the community,” Azar said. “That’s why President Trump is really relying on our great governors like Gov. DeSantis and our local leaders to make those calls in the first instance. They know what's going on in Jacksonville more than we would ever know from Washington or Atlanta.”

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